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Eckenstein, Lina, d. 1931 / Woman under monasticism: chapters on saint-lore and convent life between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 (1896)

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[chapter xii]

  [p. 432]  


'In church, chapell and priory
Abby, hospitall and nunry,
Sparing nother man nor woman,
Coopes, albes, holy ornamentes,
Crosses, chalecys, sensurs and rentes,
Convertyng all to usys prophane.'
The Blaspheming English Lutherans, verse 33.
'The Abbaies went doune because of there pride,
And made the more covetus riche for a tyme,
There leivenges dispercid one even syde,
Where wonce was somme praier, now placis for swyne.'
Quoted by Furaival from Douce MS 365, 1. 95.

The Dissolution in England.

THE movement of the 16th century commonly spoken of as the Reformation was the forcible manifestation of a revolution in thought which had long been preparing. This period may fitly be likened to a watershed between the socialistic tendencies of the Middle Ages and the individualistic tendencies which have mainly prevailed since. It forms the height which limits average modern conceptions, but which can be made the standpoint from which a more comprehensive view of things past and present becomes possible. Like other great epochs in history it is characterised by a sense of assurance, aspiration, and optimism,--and by wasted possibilities which give its study an ever renewed interest. The political, social, and intellectual changes which accompanied the Reformation are especially interesting nowadays when the standards which were then formulated are felt to be no longer final. The progressive thought of to-day, heretical though the assertion may sound to some, has become markedly insensible   [p. 433]   to the tenets which the reformers of the 16th century propounded and in which Protestantism found its strength and its safeguard. While paying due deference to the courage of the men who heralded what was advance if measured by such needs as they realised, the thinker of to-day dwells not so much on the factors of civilisation which those men turned to account as on those which they disregarded;--he is attracted by Erasmus, not by Luther, and looks more to him who worked in the interest of reform than to him who worked in the interest of the Reformation.

Among the important social changes effected by the Reformation the dissolution of the monasteries forms a small but a significant feature, a feature pregnant with meaning if considered in the light of the changing standards of family and sex morality. For those who attacked the Church of Rome in her fundamentals, while differing in points of doctrine, were at one in the belief that the state of morality needed amendment, and that marriage supplied the means of effecting the desired change. In open antagonism to principles which formed the groundwork of monasticism, they declared celibacy odious and the vow of chastity contradictory to scriptural teaching and in itself foolish and presumptuous.

The language in which Luther, Bullinger and Becon inculcated these principles is often offensive to modern ears. Their views are wanting in good taste, but consistency cannot be denied them. For these men were logical in condemning the unmarried state at every point, attacking it equally in the priest, the monk, the nun and the professed wanton. The changed attitude towards loose women has repeatedly been referred to in the course of this work, and it has been pointed out how such women, at one time not without power, had been steadily sinking in general estimation. Society, bent on having a clear line drawn between them and other women, had interfered with them in many ways, and had succeeded in stamping them as a class, to its own profit and to their disadvantage. But even at the close of the Middle Ages these women retained certain rights, such as that of having free quarters in the town, which the advocates of the new faith openly attacked and summarily swept away. Zealous if somewhat brutal in the cause of an improved morality, they maintained that marriage was the most acceptable state before God and that a woman had no claim to consideration except in her capacity as wife and mother.

The calling of the nun was doomed to fall a sacrifice to this   [p. 434]   teaching. Her vocation was in antagonism to the doctrines of the party of progress, and where not directly attacked was regarded with a scarcely less fatal indifference. It has been shown that great efforts were made before the Reformation to reform life in nunneries, but various obstacles, and among them a growing indifference to the intellectual training and interests of women, were in the way of their permanent improvement. The nun was chiefly estimated by her devotional pursuits, and when the rupture came with Rome and these devotional pursuits were declared meaningless, individuals who were driven from their homes might be pitied, and voices here and there might be raised deploring the loss of the possibilities secured by the convent, but no active efforts were made to preserve the system, nothing was attempted to save an institution, the raison d'être of which had vanished.

Previous to the Reformation the efforts of churchmen on the Continent to reform convent life had led in several instances to the disbanding of a convent. In England like results ensued from the conduct of churchmen, who in their efforts to regenerate society by raising the tone of religion, rank with the older humanists abroad. These men had no intention of interfering with the institution of monasticism as such, but were bent on removing certain abuses. Among them were John Alcock, bishop of Ely, Fisher, bishop of Rochester, and Cardinal Wolsey; they appropriated a number of decayed convents on the plea of promoting religious education, and their action may be said to have paved the way towards a general dissolution.

Among the monasteries dissolved by them were several belonging to nuns, and the fact is noteworthy that wherever the property of women was appropriated, it was appropriated to the use of men. Considering that the revenues of these houses had been granted for women and had been administered by women for centuries, this fact appears somewhat regrettable from the woman's point of view. But no blame attaches on this account to the men, for their attitude was in keeping with progressive thought generally and was shared by women themselves. Thus Margaret Beaufort († 1509) the mother of Henry VII, whose college foundations have given her lasting fame, seems never to have been struck by the thought that advantages might accrue from promoting education among women also. She founded Christ's College at Cambridge, planned the foundation there of St John's, and instituted divinity professorships both at Oxford and at Cambridge. But   [p. 435]   her efforts, in which she was supported by Fisher, bishop of Rochester, were entirely devoted to securing an improved education for the clergy.

The nunnery of St Radegund's at Cambridge was among the first establishments appropriated in the interest of the higher religious education of men on the plea of decay and deterioration. It had supported a convent of twelve nuns as late as 1460, but in 1496 it was dissolved. The change was effected by John Alcock, bishop of Ely (†1500), a man of liberal spirit who ranks high among contemporary ecclesiastics. The king's licence[1*] for the dissolution of the house contains words to the effect that it had fallen into decay owing to neglect, improvidence, and the dissolute dispositions of the prioress and convent, which were referable to the close proximity of Cambridge. The house had only two inmates, of whom one had been professed elsewhere and the other was a girl. The bishop asked leave to declare the house dissolved in order to appropriate its possessions and revenues to the foundation of a college of one master (magister), six fellows (socii) and a certain number of students (scolares). These numbers show that the property of the house was not inconsiderable. The sanction of Pope Alexander III having been obtained,[2*] the nunnery of St Radegund was transformed into Jesus College, Cambridge.[3*]

This instance paved the way for others. The suppression of the smaller monasteries for the purpose of founding and endowing seats of learning on a large scale was advocated by Cardinal Wolsey soon after his accession to power. He was advanced to the chancellorship in 1513 and was nominated cardinal by the Pope in 1515, and among the first houses which he dissolved   [p. 436]   were the two nunneries of Bromhall in Berkshire and Lillechurch in Kent.

In a letter about Bromhall addressed to the bishop of Salisbury[4*] Wolsey directs him to 'proceed against enormities, misgovernance and slanderous living, long time heretofore had, used, and continued by the prioress and nuns.' The nuns were to be removed to other places of that religion, where you best and most conveniently bestow them, especially where they may be brought and induced unto better and more religious living.' Henry VIII asked in a letter to the bishop that the deeds and evidences of the convent 'by reason of the vacation of the said place' might be delivered to his messenger.[5*] It is not clear whether the inmates returned to the world or were transferred to other nunneries. In 1522 it was found that the prioress Joan Rawlins had resigned, her only two nuns had abandoned the house, and it was granted to St John's College, Cambridge, by the interest and procurement of Fisher, bishop of Rochester.[6*]

Full information is preserved about the charges brought against the nuns at Lillechurch. From records at Cambridge we learn on what pleas proceedings were taken. The house formerly contained sixteen nuns, but for some years past there had been only three or four. It stood in a public place, that is on the road to Rochester, and was frequented by clerics, and the nuns were notorious for neglect of their duties and incontinence. Moreover the foundations at Cambridge made by Margaret Beaufort needed subsidizing, and public feeling was against the house. Depositions were taken in writing from which we see that the prioress was dead, and that one of the three inmates had yielded to temptation some eight or nine years before. In answer to the question:'Alas, madam, how happened this with you?'--she replied: 'And I had been happy I might have caused this thing to have been unknown and hidden.'--Together with her two companions she agreed to sign the form of surrender (dated 1521), which was worded as follows. 'Not compelled by fear or dread, nor circumvented by guile or deceit, out of my own free will, for certain just and lawful reasons (I) do resign and renounce all my right, title, interest and possession that I have had and now have in the aforesaid monastery.' We do not know what became of these   [p. 437]   women. Their house was given over to Bishop Fisher, and by letters patent it also passed to St John's College, Cambridge.[7*]

Regarding the charges of immorality brought against the inmates of convents in this and in other instances, it has been repeatedly pointed out by students that such accusations should be received with a reservation, for the occurrence may have taken place before the nun's admission to the house. The conventionalities of the time were curiously loose in some respects; the court of Henry VIII could boast of scant respect even for the conjugal tie, and a woman of the upper classes who disgraced herself naturally took refuge in a convent, where she could hope in some measure to redeem her character. The fact that Anne Boleyn, who was averse to the whole monastic system, at one time thought of retiring into a nunnery, is quoted as a case in point.[8*] Gairdner, J., Letters and papers of the reign of Henry VIII, Rolls Series, vol. 10, Preface, p. 43, footnote, and nr 890.

The readiness of Wolsey to dissolve decayed convents and to appropriate their property grew apace with his increase of power. In no case is it recorded that he was deterred by opposition. In 1524 he appropriated St Frideswith's, a house of Austin canons at Oxford, and made it the nucleus of his great college.[9*] His legatine powers being further extended by a bull of the same year and the royal consent being obtained,[10*] twenty small convents were dissolved by him during the next few years.[11*] Among them we note two nunneries, Wykes in Essex, and Littlemore in Oxford-shire.[12*] But little is known of the number and character of their inmates at the time. Two further bulls[13*] were obtained by Wolsey from Pope Clement (1523--34) for diminishing the number of monasteries and suppressing houses of less than twelve inmates. Gasquet, to whom we are indebted for a detailed account of the dissolution, shows that Clement, who was hard pressed by the Lutheran agitation at the time, only reluctantly yielded to Wolsey's request.[14*]

  [p. 438]  

Wolsey's proceedings in the matter, however, roused considerable local dissatisfaction and brought censure on him from the king. 'They say not that all that is ill gotten is bestowed on the colleges,' Henry wrote to him on the eve of his fall, 'but that the college is the cloak for covering mischiefs.' The king's ire was further roused by the cardinal's accepting the appointment of Isabel Jordan as abbess of Wilton, a house which was under royal patronage, and where the acceptance of the abbess belonged to the king. Anne Boleyn was in the ascendant in Henry's favour at the time, and wanted the post for someone else. But on enquiry at Wilton the unsuitability of this person became apparent. 'As touching the matter of Wilton,' Henry wrote to Anne, 'my lord cardinal has had the nuns before him and examined them, Master Bell being present, who has certified to me that for a truth she has confessed herself (which we would have abbess) to have had two children by sundry priests, and further since has been kept by a servant of Lord Broke that was, and not long ago; wherefore I would not for all the world clog your conscience nor mine to make her ruler of a house who is of such ungodly demeanour, nor I trust, you would not that neither for brother nor sister I should so stain mine honour and conscience.'[15*] It is evident from this letter that whatever the character of the women received into the house might be, the antecedents of the lady superior were no matter of indifference. In this case the king's objection to one person and the unsuitability of the other led to the appointment of a third.[16*]

From the year 1527 all other questions were swallowed up by the momentous question of the king's divorce. Wolsey, who refused to comply with his wishes, went into retirement in 1529 and died in the following year. The management of affairs then passed into the hands of those who in this country represented the ruthless and reckless spirit of rebellion which had broken loose abroad. However several years passed before the attempt to appropriate the revenues of monasteries was resumed.

In the intervening period of increasing social and political un   [p. 439]   rest we note the publication, some time before 1529, of the 'Supplication for beggars,' with which London was flooded.[17*] It was an attack on the existing religious and monastic orders by the pamphleteer Simon Fish († c. 1530). Based on the grossest misrepresentations this supplication, in a humorous style admirably suited to catch popular attention, set forth the poverty of the people, the immorality of those who were vowed to religion, and the lewdness of unattached women, and declared that if church and monastic property were put to a better use these evils would be remedied. The king, who was on the eve of a rupture with Rome, lent a willing ear to this 'supplication,' and it so fell in with the general belief in coming changes that the refutation of its falsehoods and the severe criticism of Luther written in reply by Thomas More passed for the most part unheeded.[18*]

Another incident which reflects the spirit of the time in its contrarieties and instability, is the way in which Elizabeth Barton, of the parish of Aldington, the so-called Maid or Nun of Kent, rose to celebrity or notoriety. Her foresight of coming events had been received as genuine by many men of distinction, but her visions concerning the king's projected divorce were fiercely resented by the king's partisans. Bishop Fisher wept tears of joy over her, Wolsey received her as a champion of Queen Katherine's cause, and even Thomas More showed some interest in her, while Cromwell accused her of rank superstition and induced Henry to take proceedings against her.[19*] She had been a servant girl, but at the instigation of the clergy at Canterbury had been received into St Sepulchre's nunnery, where she lived for seven years and was looked upon with special favour by the Carthusian monks of Charterhouse and Sheen, and the inmates of the monastery of Sion. At the beginning of 1533 the king was married to Anne, and in the autumn of the same year Elizabeth Barton was accused of treasonable incitement and made to do public penance. Later a bill of attainder was brought in against her, and as Gasquet has shown,[20*] she was condemned without a hearing and executed at Tyburn with several Carthusian monks who were inculpated with   [p. 440]   her on the charge of treason. Henry also made an attempt to get rid of Bishop Fisher and of Sir Thomas More by causing them to be accused of favouring her 'conspiracy,' but the evidence against them was too slight to admit of criminal proceedings. It was on the charge of declaring that Henry was not the supreme head of the Church that Fisher suffered death (June, 1535), and on the yet slighter charge of declining to give an opinion on the matter, that More was executed a fortnight later.[21*]

The parliament of 1533 had passed the act abolishing appeals to the Court of Rome, and among other rights had transferred that of monastic visitation from the Pope to the king. In the following year a further division was made,--the king claimed to be recognised as the head of the Church. It was part of Henry's policy to avoid openly attacking any part of the old system gradual changes were brought about which undermined prerogatives without making a decided break. Cromwell was appointed vicegerent in ecclesiastical matters, and it was on the plea of securing the recognition of the king's supremacy that he deputed a number of visitors or agents to conduct monastic visitations on a large scale, and to secure all possible information about religious houses. His plan and the way in which it was carried out struck a mortal blow at the whole monastic system.

The agents employed by Cromwell were naturally laymen, and the authority of the diocesan was suspended while they were at work. Great powers were conferred on them. A list of the instructions they received is in existence; and we gather from it that monks and nuns were put through searching interrogatories concerning the property of their house, the number of its inmates, its founders and privileges, its maintenance of discipline, and the right conduct of its inmates. The agents then enjoined severance from the Pope or any other foreign superior, and directed those who had taken the vow, whether men or women, henceforth to observe strict seclusion. A daily lesson in scripture was to be read; the celebration of the hours was to be curtailed; profession made under the age of twenty-four was declared invalid; and 'other special injunctions,' says the document, might 'be added by the visitors as the place and nature of accounts rendered (or comperts) shall require,' subject to the wisdom and discretion of Cromwell.[22*]

  [p. 441]  

The character of the visitors engaged in this task has been variously estimated. Among them was Dr Legh († 1545) who is described by a contemporary as a doctor of low quality. He wrote to Cromwell (July, 1535) recommending himself and Layton († 1544) for the purpose of visitation.[23*] Layton had previously acted for Cromwell in conducting visitations at Sheen and Sion in the affair of Elizabeth Barton. Legh afterwards complained that he did not act as he himself did in regard to enforcing injunctions,[24*] but Legh, even in the eyes of his companion John ap Rice, another visitor with whom he had started for the western countries, was needlessly severe. 'At Laycock (nunnery),' wrote ap Rice,[25*] 'we can find no excesses. Master (Legh) everywhere restrains the heads, the brethren and sisters from going forth; and no women of what estate soever are allowed to visit religious men's houses and vice versa. I think this is over strict, for as many of these houses stand by husbandry they must fall to decay if the heads are not allowed to go out.'

We have seen, in connection with matters on the Continent, that the heads of houses who were landowners felt it impossible to conform to the rule of always keeping within the precincts. The injunction in this case gave rise to a number of letters of complaint addressed by the heads of monasteries to Cromwell.[26*] Cecil Bodman, abbess of Wilton, wrote to him as follows.[27*]

'Dr Legh the king's visitor and your deputy, on visiting my house, has given injunction that not only all my sisters but that I should keep continually within the precincts. For myself personally I am content; but as the house is in great debt, and is not likely to improve without good husbandry, which cannot be exercised so well by any other as by myself I beg you will allow me, in company with two or three of the sad (serious) and discreet sisters of the house, to supervise such things abroad as shall be for its profit. I do not propose to lodge any night abroad, except by inevitable necessity I cannot return. I beg also, that whenever any father, mother, brother, sister, or nigh kinsfolk of my sisters, come unto them, they may have licence to speak with them in the hall in my presence. Wilton, 5 Sept.' (1535).

Another injunction which was felt to be a calamity was the   [p. 442]   order declaring that profession made under twenty-four was invalid. 'No greater blow could have been struck at the whole theory of religious life,' says Gasquet,[28*] 'than the interference with the vows contained in the order to dismiss those who were under twenty-four years of age or who had been professed at the age of twenty. The visitors, it is clear, had no scruple about their power to dispense with the solemn obligations of the monastic profession. They freely extended it to any who would go, in their idea that the more they could induce to leave their convents, the better pleased both the king and Cromwell would be.'

How far inmates of convents availed themselves of the permission to go is difficult to establish. Margaret Vernon, abbess of Little Marlow in Buckinghamshire, who was left with only one nun, did not feel unwilling to give up her house, and wrote to Cromwell as follows.[29*]

'After all due commendations had unto your good mastership, with my most humble thanks for the great cost made on me and my poor maidens at my last being with your mastership, furthermore may it please you to understand that your visitors have been here of late, who have discharged three of my sisters, the one is dame Catheryn, the other two are the young women who were last professed, which is not a little to my discomfort; nevertheless I must be content with the king's pleasure. But now as touching mine own part, I most humbly beseech you so special a good master unto me your poor bedewoman, to give me your best advice and counsel what way shall be best for me to take, seeing there shall be none left here but myself and this poor maiden and if it will please your goodness to take this house into your own hands either for yourself, or for my own (master) your son, I would be glad with all my heart to give it into your mastership's hands, with that you will command me to do therein. Trusting and nothing doubting in your goodness, that you will so provide for us that we shall have such honest living that we shall not be driven by necessity either to beg or to fall to other inconvenience. And thus I offer myself and all mine unto your most high and prudent wisdom, as unto him that is my only refuge and comfort in this world, beseeching God of His goodness to put in you His Holy Spirit, that you may do all things to His laud and glory. By your own assured bedewoman M(argaret) V(ernon).'

  [p. 443]  

Some time afterwards she was in London, trying to get an interview with Cromwell, and eventually she became governess to his son.[30*] The property of her nunnery, together with that of Ankerwyke in Buckinghamshire, and several monasteries of men, was granted by Henry in 1537 to the newly founded abbey of Bisham, but at the general dissolution it fell to the crown.[31*]

Another petition touching the matter of dismissing youthful convent inmates was addressed to Cromwell by Jane G(o)wryng, [32*] in which she begs that four inmates of her house, whose ages are between fifteen and twenty-five and who are in secular apparel may resume their habits or else have licence to dwell in the close of the house till they are twenty-four. Also she wishes to know if two girls of twelve and thirteen, the one deaf and dumb, the other an idiot, shall depart or not. Again a letter was addressed to Cromwell, asking that a natural daughter of Cardinal Wolsey might continue at Shaftesbury till she be old enough to take the vow.[33*]

Modern writers are agreed that the effect of these visitations was disastrous to authority and discipline within the convent, not so much through the infringement of privileges as through the feeling of uncertainty and restlessness which they created. Visitation was dreaded in itself. With reference to Barking nunnery Sir Thomas Audley wrote to Cromwell: 'I am informed that Dr Lee is substituted by you to visit all the religious houses in the diocese of London. My suit at this time to you is that it may please you to spare the house at Barking.'[34*]

In point of fact the visitations were conducted in a manner which left those immediately concerned in no doubt as to the ultimate object in view. In court circles likewise men were aware that the monastic system was threatened by dangerous and far-reaching changes. While Cromwell's agents were on their tours of inspection Chapuys, the French ambassador (Sept. 1535) wrote as follows:[35*] 'There is a report that the king intends the religious of all orders to be free to leave their habits and marry. And if they will stay in their houses they must live in poverty. He intends   [p. 444]   to take the rest of the revenue and will do stranger things still.' And two months later he wrote that the king meant to exclude the abbots from the House of Lords for fear of their opposition to his intentions regarding the spoliation of monasteries.[36*]

The one merit Cromwell's visitors can claim is despatch, for in six months, between July 1535 and February 1536, the information on the monasteries was collected throughout the country and laid before Parliament. Gasquet has shown that the House of Lords was the same which had been packed for passing the act of divorce, and that the king, bent on carrying his purpose, bullied the Commons into its acceptance.[37*]

The preamble to the bill is couched in strong terms and begins as follows:[38*] ' Forasmuch as manifest sins, vicious, carnal, and abominable living is daily used and committed amongst the little and small abbeys, priories, and other religious houses of monks, canons and nuns, where the congregation of such religious persons is under the number of twelve persons, whereby the governors of such religious houses and their convent spoil, destroy, consume and utterly waste, as well their churches, monasteries, priories, principal houses, farms, granges, lands, tenements and hereditaments, as the ornaments of their churches and their goods and chattels, to the high displeasure of Almighty God, slander of good religion, and to the great infamy of the king's highness and the realm, if redress should not be had thereof,'... and it goes on to say that since visitations have produced no results, and bad living continues, the Lords and Commons, after deliberation, have resolved to put the possessions of these religious houses to a better use, and that the king and his heirs shall for ever enjoy all houses that are not above the clear annual value of £ 200 in like manner as the heads of houses at present enjoy it, but that the king by 'his most excellent charity' is pleased to grant pensions to those whom he deprives.

Touching the evidence on which action was taken writers of the Elizabethan era speak of the so-called Black Book, the existence of which has since been disproved.[39*] Latimer in a sermon preached in 1549 refers to the 'enormities' which were brought to the knowledge of the house; we hold a clue to these   [p. 445]   in the letters forwarded by Cromwell's agents when on their tours of inspection, and in their 'comperts' or accounts rendered. The condensed accounts (comperta compertorum) rendered by Layton and Legh for the province of York including one hundred and twenty monasteries are extant, as also two other reports, one on twenty-four houses in Norfolk, another on ten.[40*]

It has been remarked that the evidence collected differs according to the character of the informers; the reports of Tregonwell for example are by no means so full of scandal as those of Layton and Legh. Moreover Layton and Legh gave a specially bad character to houses in the north where, as we shall see later on, both the people and the gentry were in favour of their continuance. It should also be noted that the state of the lesser houses which fell under the act was not uniformly worse than that of the larger. Many difficulties of course stood in the way of the men who collected evidence. They were received with suspicion and hatred, which their proceedings were not likely to dissipate, and they naturally lent a willing ear to any one who gave information of the character required. It has been shown that in several instances their reports were directly contradicted by those made by the leading men in the different counties, who after the passing of the act were appointed to make a new and exact survey, so that, considering the evidence forthcoming from both sides, it seems reasonable to accept that while the mode of life within convents no longer compared favourably with the mode of life outside them, their standard had not fallen so low, as to render these institutions uniformly despicable.

An example of how the visitors were received is afforded by a letter from Layton to Cromwell, in which he describes how after meeting Legh in the north they visited Chicksand, a Gilbertine house in Bedfordshire.[41*] The nuns here at first refused to admit him, and when he forced an entrance the two prioresses would not admit the accusations made against two of their nuns, 'nor the parties concerned, nor the nuns, only one old beldame.' He tried intimidation and was told by the prioress 'that they were bound by their religion never to confess the secret faults done among them except only to their visitor of religion, and to that they were sworn every one of them at their first admission.'

A similar esprit de corps was manifested by a house of Gilber   [p. 446]   tine canons.[42*] Layton in the same letter gives a bad character to the nunnery of Harwold, in Bedfordshire, which was inhabited by Austin canonesses,[43*] and the inmates of which had been foolish enough to sign a Latin document in favour of Lord Mordaunt without knowing what it contained.

The accusations brought by the visitors can be summarised under two headings, superstitions and scandalous living. The accounts of superstitions are full of most interesting particulars for the student of art and of folklore; the properties which were attached to relics, the character of the images and paintings which were held in reverence, and the construction of saint-images, will amply repay study.[44*] The instances of scandalous living recorded are numerous and affect alike the inmates of men's and of women's houses. Coloured as they may be to suit the temper of inquisitor and informer, there is no denying that they point to an advanced state of monastic decay.

It has been estimated that the lesser houses including those of monks and nuns which fell under the act numbered about three hundred and eighty; they were to surrender to the crown within a year. Of these the women's houses, owing to their comparative poverty, were relatively more numerous than those of the men. Out of about one hundred and thirty nunneries which existed at this period only fifteen were exempt through having a yearly income exceeding £ 200, but in addition to these over twenty by some means or other secured a reprieve.

As the act abolishing the lesser houses was based on the assumption of their corruption, the heads of some of the houses which bore a good character asked leave on this ground to remain. Among those who wrote to Cromwell in this sense was Jane Messyndyne, prioress of a convent of about ten nuns at Legbourne in Leicestershire, who pleaded that no fault had been found with her house.[45*] 'And whereas,' she wrote, 'we do hear that a great number of abbeys shall be punished, suppressed and put down because of their misliving, and that all abbeys and priories under   [p. 447]   the value of £ 200 be at our most noble prince's pleasure to suppress and put down, yet if it may please your goodness we trust in God you shall hear no complaints against us neither in our living nor hospitality keeping.' But petitions such as hers apparently passed unheeded, for in the autumn of the same year (Sept. 1536), the process of dissolution was going on at her house.[46*]

There seems no doubt that in many cases where the lesser houses were allowed to remain bribery was resorted to, perhaps backed by the intervention of friends. Payments into the Royal Exchequer were made by a large proportion of the lesser houses which continued unmolested, and among them were a number of nunneries which paid sums ranging from £ 20 to £ 400.[47*] . Among these was Brusyard in Bedfordshire, a small settlement of nuns of the order of St Glare, the abbess of which wrote to Cromwell seeking his intervention;[48*] she ultimately secured a reprieve and paid the sum of £ 20. [49*] Alice Fitzherbert, abbess of the nunnery of Polesworth in Warwickshire, to which an exceptionally good character was given, bought a reprieve for £ 50, on the intervention it is said of friends.[50*] Again the abbess of Delapray, who is characterised as a very sickly and aged woman, secured a reprieve and paid £ 266. The agent Tregonwell had reported well of Godstow.[51*] Its inmates all bore a good character excepting one who, some thirteen years ago, had broken her vow while living in another convent, had been transferred to Delapray by the bishop of Lincoln and had since lived virtuously. Margaret Tewkesbury the abbess wrote to Cromwell begging him to accept a little fee and to forward the letter she enclosed to the king.[52*] Her convent was allowed to remain.

The attempt of the prioress of Catesby to save her house in a similar manner was fruitless. The house bore an excellent character according to Tregonwell,[53*] and his opinion was confirmed by the commissioners who came down later (May, 1536) to take an exact survey. 'We found the house,' they wrote to Cromwell,[54*] 'in very perfect order, the prioress a wise, discreet, and religious   [p. 448]   woman with nine devout nuns under her as good as we have seen. The house stands where it is a relief to the poor, as we hear by divers trustworthy reports. If any religious house is to stand, none is more meet for the king's charity than Catesby. We have not found any such elsewhere....' But the recommendation was insufficient and Joyce Bykeley, 'late prioress,' addressed herself directly to Cromwell.--' Dr Gwent informed you last night,' she wrote,[55*] 'that the queen had moved the king for me and offered him 2000 marks for the house at Catesby, but has not yet a perfect answer. I beg you, in my great sorrow, get the king to grant that the house may stand and get me years of payment for the 2000 marks. You shall have 100 marks of me to buy you a gelding and my prayers during my life and all my sisters during their lives. I hope you have not forgotten the report the commissioners sent of me and my sisters....' But her letter was of no avail. Somehow she had incurred the king's displeasure,[56*] and the order to dissolve her convent was not countermanded.

The sums paid by some nunneries appear enormous compared with their yearly income. Thus the convent of Pollesloe, with a yearly income of £ 164, paid the sum of £ 400 into the Royal Exchequer; Laycock, with an income of £ 168, paid £ 300, and the nuns of St Mary at Chester, with an income of £ 66, paid £ 160; other sums paid are given by Gasquet.[57*]

Among the lesser houses reprieved was St Mary's, Winchester, one of the nunneries dating from the Anglo-Saxon period, but which in course of time had decreased. The report of the commissioners who came down to take stock of the contents of the settlement provides us with many interesting particulars.[58*] The number of persons residing in the monastery at the time was over a hundred. The abbess Elizabeth Shelley presided over a convent of twenty-six nuns, twenty-two of whom were professed and four novices. The nuns are designated in this report by the old term 'mynchyns.' With the exception of one who desired 'capacity,' that is liberty to return to the world, they all declared their intention of going into other houses. Five lay sisters also dwelt there, thirteen women-servants and twenty-six girls, some of whom were the daughters of knights receiving their education. Of the   [p. 449]   women-servants one belonged to the abbess who lived in a house of her own with her gentlewoman; the prioress, sub-prioress, sexton, and perhaps one other nun, lived in separate houses and each had her servant. There were also a number of priests and other men designated as officers of the household. Among them was a general receiver and his servant, a clerk and his servant, a gardener (curtyar), a caterer, a bottler (botyler?), a cook, an undercook, a baker, a convent cook, an under convent cook, a brewer, a miller, several porters and children of the high altar,' and two men enjoying corrodies, that is free quarters and means of subsistence. The yearly income of this vast establishment was assessed at £179, and the house therefore came under the act. But the abbess, Elizabeth Shelley, who is described as a person of spirit and talent, found means to avert the storm. The sum of £333 was paid by her into the Royal Exchequer,[59*] and (in August 1536) letters patent were obtained by which the abbey was refounded with all its property excepting some valuable manors.[60*]

Other convents which at the same time secured a licence to remain[61*] were the Benedictine convent of Chatteris with Anne Seton[62*] as prioress; the Austin convent of Gracedieu in Leicestershire; the convent of the order of St Clare of Dennis; also the nuns of St Andrew's, Marricks in Yorkshire under Christabel Cooper, and of St Mary's, Heyninges, in Lincoinshire under Joan Sandford.[63*] No payment is recorded in connection with any of these houses so far as I have been able to ascertain.

Among the reprieves that of the Austin nuns or White Ladies at Gracedieu is noteworthy, as the report of Cromwell's agents (Feb. 1536) had charged two of its inmates with incontinence, and among other superstitions countenanced by the convent, mentioned their holding in reverence the girdle and part of the tunic of St Francis which were supposed to help women in their confinement.[64*] But the special commissioners a few months later spoke of the prioress Agnes Litherland and her convent of fifteen nuns in the highest terms, describing them as of good and virtuous con   [p. 450]   versation and living, and saying that all of them desired their house to remain.[65*] The convent of Dennis, which secured a licence at the same time, was one of the few settlements of nuns of St Clare, the abbess of which, Elizabeth Throgmerton, was renowned for her liberal sympathies. In 1528 a wealthy London merchant was imprisoned for distributing Tyndale's books and other practices of the sort, and he pleaded among other reasons for exculpation that, the abbess of Dennis wishing to borrow Tyndale's Enchiridion, he had lent it to her and had spent much money on restoring her house.[66*] Legh in a letter to Cromwell[67*] described how on visiting Dennis he was met by the weeping nuns, who were all ready to return to the world, a statement in direct contradiction to the fact that the house was not dissolved.

The work of dissolution began in April 1536 and continued without interruption throughout the summer. Gasquet holds that the women suffered more than the men by being turned adrift.[68*] 'Many things combined to render the dissolution of conventual establishments and the disbanding of the religious more terrible to nuns than to monks. A woman compelled to exchange the secluded life of a cloister with all its aids to piety for an existence in the world, to which she could never rightly belong, would be obviously in a more dangerous and undesirable position than a man.

By a provision of the act those who were professed were to receive pensions, but the number of inmates of the lesser houses to whom they were granted was comparatively small.[69*] Moreover pensions were not apportioned with regard to the needs of subsistence, but to the wealth of the house, so that even those who received them were in a great measure thrown on their own resources. The number of professed nuns, as is apparent from the accounts given of St Mary's, Winchester, and other houses, was relatively small compared with the number of servants and dependents. These in some cases received a small 'award' but were thrown out of employment, while the recipients of alms from the house were likewise deprived of their means of living,   [p. 451]   and went to swell the ranks of those who were dissatisfied with the innovation. While the process of dissolution was going on (July 1536) Chapuys the French ambassador wrote as follows:[70*] 'It is a lamentable thing to see a legion of monks and nuns who have been chased from their monasteries wandering miserably hither and thither seeking means to live; and several honest men have told me that what with monks, nuns, and persons dependent on the monasteries suppressed, there were over 20,000 who knew not how to live.' His estimate may have reference to the ultimate effect of the act.[71*] The immediate results of the suppression were, however, disastrous throughout the country, and the dissatisfaction which the suppression caused went far to rouse the latent discontent of the northern provinces into open rebellion.

It was in Lincolnshire, in October, that the commissioners first met with opposition. From here a rising spread northwards to Scotland, and under the name of the 'Pilgrimage of Grace' drew votaries from the lay and religious classes alike. The insurgents claimed among other things that the innovations in religion should be disowned, and that despoiled monasteries should be restored. They pursued the visitors Layton and Legh with unrelenting hatred on account of their extortions; Legh was in danger of his life and barely escaped their fury.[72*] The rising assumed such proportions that the king was seriously alarmed; an army was sent to the north, strenuous efforts were made to win over the powerful northern barons, and concessions were made and rescinded with much shameful double-dealing. Beyond the effect it had on religious houses, the story of the rebellion, on which a new light has recently been thrown by the publication of letters which passed at the time,[73*] does not concern us here. Wherever the insurgents spread they seized on despoiled monasteries and reinstated their superiors and inmates; among other houses the nunnery of Seton in Cumberland was restored for a time.[74*] But in proportion as the king regained his authority, terrible bloodshed followed; the representatives of the chief families and the abbots who had joined in the rising were hanged, burnt, or beheaded, and their property confiscated by attainder. Cromwell, who was   [p. 452]   still on the high road to prosperity, availed himself of the rebellion to institute a general suppression, which was speedily and summarily carried into effect. In the autumn of 1537, the fear of systematic revolt being quelled, the suppression began and extended over the whole of 1538 and 1539. No further evidence was collected, no act was passed till April 1539, when a provision was made by which all monasteries which were dissolved or surrendered fell to the king.[75*] The commissioners came down on each house in succession, beginning with the less wealthy and influential ones, and used every means to secure a free surrender. Even then a certain reticence in the proceedings was observed which went far to blind contemporaries to the vastness of the ultimate object in view, for every effort was made to keep up the fiction that Henry was doing no more than correcting abuses and accepting free surrenders. But the study of documents proves things to have been otherwise. The promise of a pension was held out on condition of a voluntary surrender, but where hesitation was shown in accepting, the effect of threats of deprivation was tried. The visitor Bedyll wrote that he advised the monks of Charterhouse rather to 'surrender than abide the extremity of the king's law,'[76*] and many of the forms of surrender which are extant remain unsigned. On others the name of the superior is the only signature, on others again the names of the superior and the members of the convent are entered in the same hand. Considering the helpless position in which religious houses were placed, it seems a matter for wonder that any opposition was made.

It is interesting to find that as late as (Jan.) 1538, two years after the passing of the first bill, the heads of houses were asked to believe that there was no wish for a general suppression,[77*] and that a grant of continuance was made (May 1538) to the nunneries of Kirkless and Nunappleton in Yorkshire.[78*] In Yorkshire there was a strong feeling in favour of nunneries,--' in which our daughters (are) brought up in virtue,' as Aske, one of the leaders of the rebellion, put it,[79*] and owing doubtless to the opposition made by the rebels, a number of lesser nunneries in the north which came under the act escaped dissolution. Among   [p. 453]   them besides Kirkiess and Nunappleton were Swine and NunKelyng; there is no evidence that they secured a licence at the time. The fact that Kirkiess remained and gained a reprieve in 1538 is the more noticeable as the commissioners had in the first instance reported unfavourably on the state of the house.[80*]

In February 1538 a courtier wrote to Lord Lisle,[81*] 'the abbeys go down as fast as they may and are surrendered to the king,' adding the pious wish: 'I pray God send you one among them to your part. For the property of religious houses which were appropriated to the king was now frequently granted to courtiers, or to those who were quick enough to avail themselves of their opportunities in the general scramble.

Several of the agents who had previously conducted visitations were among those who carried on the work of the dissolution. Among them London († 1543) has been characterised as 'the most terrible of all the monastic spoilers' his letters remain to show in what spirit he stripped the houses of their property, seized relics and defaced and destroyed everything he could lay hands on.[82*] There is a letter extant which Katherine Bulkeley, abbess of Godstow, wrote to Cromwell complaining of him.[83*] He came down to her house (Nov. 1537), ostensibly to hold a visitation, but really bent on securing a surrender.

'...Dr London, which as your lordship does well know was against my promotion and has ever since borne me great malice and grudge like my mortal enemy, is suddenly come unto me with a great rout with him and here does threaten me and my sisters saying that he has the king's commission to suppress my house in spite of my teeth. And when he saw that I was content that he should do all things according to his commission and showed him plain that I would never surrender to his hand being my ancient enemy, now he begins to entreat me and to inveigle my sisters one by one otherwise than I ever heard tell that any of the king's subjects have been handled, and here tarries and continues to my great cost and charge, and will not take my answer that I will not surrender till I know the king's gracious commandment and your lordship's...' and more to the same purpose.

  [p. 454]  

London on the following day wrote to Cromwell[84*] asking that the 'mynchyns' or nuns of her house, many of whom were aged and without friends, should be generously dealt with (in the matter of a pension). Stories were current[85*] at the time about insults to which the nuns were exposed by the agents. Although it seems probable that there was no excessive delicacy used in their treatment, no direct complaints except those of the abbess of Godstow have been preserved.

The last pages of the history of several of the great abbeys are full of traits of heroism; one cannot read without sympathy of the way in which for example the abbot of Glastonbury identified himself with the system to which he belonged, and perished with it rather than be divided from it. The staunch faith of the friars no less commands respect. The heads of women's houses naturally made less opposition. However Florence Bannerman, abbess of Amesbury, refused every attempt to bribe or force her into a surrender. After considerable delay she was deposed in December 1539, and was succeeded by Joan Darrell who surrendered the house at the king's bidding,[86*] and accepted the comparatively high pension of £ 100.

To some of the heads of houses it seemed incredible that the old system was passing away for ever, and they surrendered in the belief that their deprivation was only temporary. Elizabeth Shelley, abbess of St Mary's, Winchester, who in 1535 had saved her house, accepted the surrender but continued to dwell at Winchester with a number of her nuns, and when she died bequeathed a silver chalice which she had saved to the college in the city on condition that it should be given back to St Mary's if the convent were restored.[87*] The fact that she succeeded in carrying away a chalice appears exceptional, for the inmates of convents who were expelled seem as a rule to have taken with them nothing except perhaps their books of devotion.

The story of the dissolution repeats itself in every convent. The inventory of the house having been taken, the lead was torn from the roofs, and sold together with the bells; the relics and pictures were packed in sacks and sent up to London to be burnt.

  [p. 455]  

The plate and jewels of the house, the amount of which was considerable in the houses of men and in some of women (for example in Barking) were also forwarded to London to be broken up and melted; in a few instances they were sold. The house's property in furniture, utensils and vestments was sold there and then. The superiors and convent inmates were then turned away, and the buildings that had so long been held in reverence were either devoted to some profane use or else left to decay.

The inventory taken at the dissolution of the ancient Benedictine nunnery of Wherwell in Hampshire has been preserved among others, and shows how such a house was dealt with.[88*] There is a list of the inmates of the convent and of the pensions granted to them; the abbess in this case received a yearly pension of £ 40, and her nuns' pensions ranged from £ 3. 6s. 8d. to £ 6. We then get a list of the dwellings of which the settlement was composed. The houses and buildings 'assigned to remain were as follows: 'the abbess' lodging with the houses within the quadrant, as the water leads from the east side of the cloister to the gate, the farmery, the mill and millhouse with the slaughter-house adjoining, the brewing and baking houses with the granaries to the same, the barn and stables in the outer court.' The list of dwellings 'deemed to be superfluous' follows. 'The church, choir, and steeple covered with lead, the cloister covered with tiles and certain gutters of lead, the chapter house, the refectory (ffrayter), the dormitory, the convent kitchen and all the old lodgings between the granary and the hall door covered with tiles.' Then follow accounts of the lead and bells remaining, of the jewels, plate and silver 'reserved for the king's use,' and of the ornaments, goods and chattels which were sold. We further gather that the debts of the house were paid and that rewards and wages were given to the chaplain, officers and servants before they were turned away.

As mentioned above the pensions given differed greatly, and the heads of wealthy houses were allowed considerable sums. Thus Elizabeth Souche, abbess of Shaftesbury, the yearly income of which house was taxed at £ 1166, received £ 133 a year and all her nuns to the number of fifty-five were pensioned. Dorothy Barley, abbess of Barking, a house taxed at £ 862, received a yearly pension of £ 133; while Elizabeth Shelley, abbess of St   [p. 456]   Mary's, Winchester, received only £ 26 a year. The prioress of St Andrew's, Marricks, a small house, received £ 5 annually, and her nuns a pension of from twenty to forty shillings each. Gasquet points out that a large number of those who were pensioned died during the first few years after the surrender.[89*] Probably many of them were old, but there is extant a pension roll of the year '553 (reign of Philip and Mary) from which can be gathered that a certain number of pensioned monks and nuns were then alive and continued to draw their pensions. Gasquet further remarks that only a few of the nuns who were turned away are known to have married;[90*] considering that hardly any are known to have left their convents voluntarily, and that many of the younger ones were turned away through the act of 1535, this seems only natural.

Eye-witnesses as well as Cromwell's agents have left descriptions which give a striking picture of the brutality of the proceedings.[91*] But the hardships to which the convent inmates were exposed, the terrible waste of their property, and the senseless destruction of priceless art treasures, must not blind us to the fact that the breaking up of the monastic system was but an incident in one of the most momentous revolutions within historic record. The dissolution of the monasteries at the time of the Reformation, to be rightly estimated, must be considered as part of a wider change which was remoulding society on an altered basis.

It is interesting to compare the view taken of monastic life at the time of the dissolution with the attitude taken towards convents in the following period. Some writings, as for example Lindesay in the play of the Three Estates, acted in the North in 1535,[92*] severely censure the inclinations which are fostered in the convent.

But strong as the feeling against convents and their inmates was in some instances at the time of the Reformation, when the system was once removed little antagonism remained towards those who had represented it. The thought of the nun, fifty years after she had passed away in England, roused no acrimony. Shakspere had no prejudice against her, and Milton was so   [p. 457]   far impressed in her favour that he represented 'Melancholy' under the form of a 'pensive nun, devout and pure,--Sober, steadfast and demure.' It was only at a much later period that the agitation raised by the fear of returning 'Popery' caused men to rake up scandals connected with convents and to make bugbears out of them.

The losses incurred by the destruction of the convents were not however slow in making themselves felt; but as indifference towards women's intellectual interests had made part of the movement, a considerable time went by before the loss of the educational possibilities which the convent had secured to women was deplored. 'In the convents,' says Gasquet,[93*] 'the female portion of the population found their only teachers, the rich as well as the poor, and the destruction of these religious houses by Henry was the absolute extinction of any systematic education for women during a long period.' While devotion to domestic duties, exclusive of all other interests, continued to be claimed from women, the loss of their schools was a matter of indifference to society in general. But in proportion as shortcomings in women were felt, the thought arose that these might be due to want of training. The words in which the divine, Fuller († 1661), expressed such thoughts in the 17th century are well worth recalling. The vow of celibacy in his eyes remained a thing of evil, but short of this the convents had not been wholly bad.

'They were good she schools wherein the girls and maids of the neighbourhood were taught to read and work; and sometimes a little Latin was taught them therein. Yea, give me leave to say, if such feminine foundations had still continued, provided no vow were obtruded upon them, (virginity is least kept where it is most constrained,) haply the weaker sex, besides the avoiding modern inconveniences, might be heightened to a higher perfection than hitherto hath been attained.'[94*]

  [p. 458]  

The Memoir of Charitas Pirckheimer.

A memoir is extant from the pen of the abbess of a convent at Nürnberg. It was written (1524--28) during the stormy period following upon the outbreak of the Lutheran agitation, and it helps us to realize the effect which the rupture with Rome had on a convent of nuns. Charitas Pirckheimer, the author of this memoir, was the sister of Wilibald Pirckheimer († 1530), a well-known humanist, and through him she was in touch with some of the leading representatives of learning and art of her day. She was well advanced in life and had many years of active influence behind her when the troubles began of which she has left a graphic description.

An examination of the contents of her memoir must stand as a specimen of the effects which the Reformation had on women's convent life on the Continent, effects which varied in almost every town and every province. For the breaking up of the monastic system abroad had none of the continuity and completeness it had in England. The absence of centralised temporal and spiritual authority left the separate townships and principalities free to accept or reject the change of faith as they chose. The towns were ruled by councils on which the decision in the first place depended, and in the principalities the change depended on the attitude of prince and magnate, so that the succession of the prince of a different faith, or the conquest of one province by another, repeatedly led to a change of religion. In some districts the first stormy outbreak was followed by a reaction in favour of Rome, and convents which had disbanded were restored on a narrowed basis; in others the monastic system which had received a severe shock continued prostrate for many years. But even in those districts where the change of faith was permanently accepted, its influence on conventual establishments was so varied that an account of the way in which it put an end to nunneries lies beyond the scope of this work. It must suffice to point out that some convents, chiefly unreformed ones, disbanded or surrendered under the general feeling of restlessness; and that others were attacked and destroyed during the atrocities of the Peasants' War. The heads of others again, with a clearsightedness one cannot but admire, rejected Romish usages and beliefs in favour of the Lutheran faith, and their houses have continued to this day as homes for unmar   [p. 459]   ried women of the aristocracy. Others were suffered to remain under the condition that no new members should be admitted, but that the old ones should be left in possession of their house till they died. To this latter class belonged the convent of St Clara at Nürnberg which we are about to discuss.

The convent dated its existence from the year 1279, in which several nuns from Söflingen, near Ulm, joined a number of religious women who were living together at Nürnberg, and prevailed upon them to adopt the rule of St Clara and place themselves under the guardianship of the Franciscan friars who had settled in Nürnberg in 1226.[95*] It has been mentioned above that the nuns of this order, usually designated as Poor Clares, did not themselves manage that property of theirs which lay outside the precincts; they observed strict seclusion and were chiefly absorbed by devotional pursuits. Under the influence of the movement of monastic reform described in a previous chapter, Clara Gundelfingen (1450--1460), abbess of the house at Nürnberg, had greatly improved its discipline, and nuns were despatched from thence to convents at Brixen, Bamberg and other places to effect similar changes. There was another convent of nuns at Nürnberg dedicated to St Katherine which was under the supervision of the Dominican friars, but the convent of St Clara was the more important one and seems to have been largely recruited from members of wealthy burgher families. In 1476 it secured a bull from the Pope by which its use was altogether reserved to women who were born in Nürnberg.

Charitas Pirckheimer came to live in the house (1478) at the age of twelve. She was one of a family of seven sisters and one brother; all the sisters entered convents, excepting one who married, and they were in time joined by three of the five daughters of their brother.[96*] These facts show that the women of most cultivated and influential families still felt convent life congenial. The Dominican writer Nider (t 1438), speaking of convent life in the districts about Nürnberg, remarks that he had nowhere else found so many virtuous, chaste and industrious virgins.[97*] Of the members of the Pirckheimer family who became nuns, Clara († 1533) joined her sister Charitas and acted as secretary to her for many years; her letters show her to have   [p. 460]   been of a lively and sanguine disposition.[98*] Walpurg, another sister, lived as a nun in the convent of St Clara at Munich; Katharina became prioress at Geisenfeld, and Sabina and Euphemia entered the ancient Benedictine settlement of Bergen near Neuburg, of which they successively became abbesses. Sabina (1521--29), like her sister Charitas, was a great admirer of Albrecht Durer, whom she consulted on the subject of illuminations done at her house.[99*] A number of her letters remain to show that she held opinions of her own on some points of doctrine and watched the progress of affairs at Nürnberg with interest.[100*] Her sister Euphemia (1529--47), who succeeded her, experienced even greater hardships than Charitas, for when Palgrave, Otto Heinrich of Neuburg, accepted the Protestant faith (1544), she and her nuns were expelled from their convent, and spent several years staying first at one place then at another, till the victory which the emperor Karl V won at Mühlberg (1547) made it possible for them to return to Bergen.

Charitas on entering the house at Nürnberg found herself among the daughters of family friends and relations. She contracted a lasting friendship with Apollonia Tucher, who was afterwards elected to the office of prioress, which she held for many years. Apollonia was nearly related to Anton Tucher († 1524), one of the wealthiest and most influential men of the town, and to Sixtus Tucher († 1507), a learned divine who was made provost of the church of St Lorenz, and in this capacity instructed the nuns of St Clara and provided them with religious literature. Scheurl († 1542), a nephew of Apollonia and a distinguished jurist, who came to settle at Nürnberg, greatly admired Charitas. We shall return to him later on.

Felicitas Grundherrin, another nun, who was made fortress in 1503, wrote letters to her father which throw an additional light on the conduct and the experiences of the nuns during the period of religious contention. There were sixty inmates at that time, and among them we find the chief families of the town represented.

We are not informed at what age Charitas made profession.   [p. 461]   In 1494 she was joined by her sister Clara, and a few years later, when we first hear of her and her sister in connection with their brother, she was engaged in teaching the novices.

The career of Wilibald Pirckheimer, a man of considerable literary ability, is interesting, as it forms the centre of the intellectual and artistic life of Nürnberg, which at that time was achieving some of its greatest triumphs. The friend of Albrecht Dürer and of the leading humanists, he was himself full of enthusiasm for the revived interest in classic culture, and filled with that liberal appreciation of merit regardless of origin and nationality which is one of the attractive traits of the movement. In compliance with the taste of his age he had studied in Italy, and shortly after his return to Nürnberg, on the occasion of their father's death (1501), he lent his sisters, Charitas and Clara, a copy of the hymns of the Christian poet Prudentius, and an unnamed portion of Jerome's works, for their comfort and perusal; Charitas thanked him for the loan in a Latin letter in which we get our first glimpse of her.[101*] She says that she has been interested to find among the hymns some which are habitually sung in the choir and the authorship of which was unknown to her, and she begs she may keep Jerome's writings for some time longer, as they afford her so much delight. She refers to the frequent loans of books from her brother and assures him how much she depends on him for her education, begging him to visit and further instruct her. She has some knowledge of scripture, she says, but barely enough to instruct the novices.

In the year 1487 Celtes († 1508), a celebrated Latin scholar and poet, was crowned poet laureate by the Emperor Friedrich III at Nürnberg, and received at his hands the doctor's degree and a laurel wreath. Afterwards he travelled about in Germany, rousing interest in the revival of classical studies wherever he went, and encouraging those who were interested in learning to band together in societies (sodalitates) for the purpose of editing and publishing the classics. During a stay at a monastery in Regensburg (1501) he had come across the forgotten dramas of the nun Hrotsvith. They seemed to him so worthy of attention that he had them published at Nürnberg in a beautiful illustrated edition. We do not know if he was previously acquainted with   [p. 462]   Charitas; but he sent her a copy of the dramas, and she wrote a grateful reply.[102*] She begins by deploring the news she has heard that Celtes has been attacked and plunder ed by robbers. 'A few days ago,' she writes, 'I received the interesting writings of the learned virgin Hrotsvith, sent to me by you for no merits of my own, for which I express and owe you eternal gratitude. I rejoice that He who bestows powers of mind (largitor ingenii) and grants wisdom to men who are great and learned in the law, should not have denied to the frail and humbler sex some of the crumbs from the tables of wisdom. In this learned virgin the words of the apostle are verified that God chooses the humble to confound the strong....'

Celtes was charmed by this letter, and was inspired to compose a Latin ode[103*] in praise of Charitas. In it he addressed her as the crown and star of womanhood, praised her for her knowledge of Latin, in which she worthily followed in the steps of a learned father and a learned brother, and enlarged on the pleasure her letter had brought. With the ode he sent a copy of a work on the city of Nürnberg lately published by him, and Charitas in reply sent a long letter which is most instructive in regard to the light it throws on her general attitude towards humanist culture.[104*] While delighted by the gifts and the attentions of so distinguished a man as Celtes, she felt critical towards the heathen element in him, which seemed to her incompatible with the claims of a higher morality. The letter is too long to reproduce in full, but the following are some of its most noteworthy passages. 'I am your unworthy pupil, but a great admirer of yours and a well-wisher for your salvation, and as such I would earnestly and with all my heart entreat you not indeed to give up the pursuit of worldly wisdom, but to put it to higher uses, that is to pass from heathen writings to holy scripture, from what is earthly to what is divine, from the created to the Creator.... Indeed neither knowledge nor any subject of investigation which is from God is to be contemned, but mystic theology and a good virtuous life must be ranked highest. For human understanding is weak and may fail us, but true faith and a good conscience never can. I therefore put before you, most learned doctor, when you have enquired into all under the sun, that the wisest of men said, Vanity of vanities.... In the same   [p. 463]   friendly spirit I would beg you to give up celebrating the unseemly tales of Jupiter, Venus, Diana, and other heathen beings whose souls are burning in Gehenna and who are condemned by right-minded men as detestable and deserving of oblivion; make the saints of God your friends by honouring their names and their memory, that they may guide you to the eternal home when you leave this earth.'

At the end of her letter she begged to be excused writing in this strain in words which suggest that her brother had urged her to speak out her mind, and a further letter of hers addressed to Wilibald says that she is forwarding to him a copy of her letter to Celtes.[105*] She begs he will not bring him to the grating without sending her word previously, and expresses the belief that Celtes will not take umbrage.

We hear no more of their intercourse. Celtes soon afterwards left Nürnberg, and when Helena Meichnerin, abbess of the convent, resigned on account of some complaints of the town council, Charitas was chosen abbess (1503). Her acceptance of the post was made conditional by the Franciscan friars on her giving up her Latin correspondence,[106*] and there can be no doubt that this prohibition was primarily aimed at her intercourse with men like Celtes, who was known to be very lax in his morality, and whose sympathies in regard to learning were in direct opposition to the narrow religious views of the friars. Charitas conformed, but Wilibald's anger was roused, and he wrote to Celtes: 'You know that my sister Charitas has been chosen abbess. Imagine, those soft-footed men (Χυλόποδεζ) have forbidden her to write Latin for the future. Observe their caution, not to say roguery.'[107*]

Charitas apparently wrote no more Latin letters, but her brother's friends continued to take an interest in her. Wilibald had a sincere regard for her abilities and frequently wrote of her to his friends. Other members of the humanist circle sought her out. Scheurl, the young jurist mentioned above, sent her from Bologna a copy of his 'Uses of the mass' (Utilitates missae) with a flattering letter which was presented to her by the provost Tucher (1506).[108*] It is overflowing with youthful enthusiasm, and says that of all the women he has met there are only two who are distinguished by abilities and intellect, knowledge and wealth,   [p. 464]   virtue and beauty, and are comparable to the daughters of Laelius and Hortensius and to Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi; the one is Cassandra (Fedele, poetess[109*] ) in Venice, the other is Charitas in Nürnberg. He expatiates on the merits of the Pirckheimer family generally, and says Charitas is following the example of her relatives in preferring a book to wool, a pen to the distaff, a stilus to a needle. At a later stage of his career (1515) Scheurl wrote that it was usual for men who were distinguished in mind and power to admire and respect the abilities, learning and moral excellence of this abbess.[110*]

In 1513 Wilibald published an edition of Plutarch's essay 'On retribution' which he had translated from Greek into Latin, and dedicated it to his sister Charitas in a long and flattering epistle.[111*] Mindful no doubt of the influences about her and referring to difficulties in his own career, he spoke in the highest terms of the Stoic philosophers and of the help their writings afforded. 'Accept this gift on paper which, if I judge rightly, will not be displeasing to you,' he says, 'and carefully peruse the writings of this pagan author (gentilis). And you will soon see that the philosophers of antiquity did not stray far from the truth.' Charitas was able to appreciate this point of view and admitted in her reply that he had sent her a jewel more precious than gold and silver.[112*] Speaking of Plutarch she confessed that 'he writes not like an unbelieving heathen but like a learned divine and imitator of Christian perfection. It is a wonderful circumstance which has filled me with joy and surprise.' But she thought her brother's praise of her excessive. 'I am not learned myself, only the friend of those who are learned; I am no writer, I only enjoy reading the writings of others; I am unworthy of so precious a gift, though in truth you have done well and wisely in placing the word Charitas at the head of your work. For Charity is the virtue which makes all good things to be shared, and that Charity which is the Divine Spirit itself will reward you here and in the life to come, where honest efforts will be fully requited.'

A short time afterwards Pirckheimer dedicated to his sister Clara, who was now teaching the novices, a 'Collection of the   [p. 465]   Moral Sentences of Nilus.' It was a translation from Greek and Latin, and the title was ornamented with a design by Dürer.[113*] He sent it 'to prevent her feeling any jealousy of her sister.' Clara shared her sister's tastes and was herself an ardent reader. When the New Testament edited by Erasmus appeared, Pirckheimer wrote to him that his sisters, who zealously read his writings, took great delight in this book also, and he says that they had greater insight into it than many men who were proud of their learning. They would have written themselves, he adds, if they had not felt shy of so great a man. Erasmus on one occasion compared the daughters of Sir Thomas More to the sisters of Wilibald Pirckheimer. Some writings of the humanist Reuchlin were also perused by them.[114*]

Wilibald further dedicated to Charitas his edition of the works of Fulgentius (1519), in a long preface in which he describes the difficulty he had had in procuring the manuscript from the library of his friend Tritheim, how he had despaired of deciphering it till the learned Cochlaeus came to his rescue, and how sure he felt that his sister would look upon the book as a treasure.[115*] The translation of the sermons of Gregorius Nazianzenus, an important undertaking, he also accomplished mainly for the use of his sisters.[116*]

Besides their devotional and intellectual interests, the nuns at St Clara made their own clothes, and seem to have had some ability in sewing, for when the imperial robes which were kept at Nürnberg were to be carried to Aachen for the coronation of the Emperor Karl V, they were first given into the hands of the nuns to be looked over and mended.[117*]

An interesting light is thrown on the less serious side of the character of Charitas by an amusing German letter which she wrote to Dürer and two envoys of Nürnberg who were staying at Augsburg in 1518 on the occasion of the Imperial Diet. From there they had sent her a missive penned in a jovial hour, and Charitas in reply wrote:[118*] 'I received your friendly letter with special delight and read it with such attention that my eyes were often brim full, but more from laughing than any other emotion. Many thanks to you that in spite of your great business and your amusements you should have taken the trouble to give directions   [p. 466]   to this little nun about cloister-life, of which you have a clear mirror before you at present....' And she begs the envoy Spengler to study accounts with a view to advising her how to waste everything till nothing remains, and begs Dürer, 'who is such a draughts-man and genius,' to give his attention to the buildings, so that when she has the choir rebuilt he may help and advise her how to introduce larger windows so that the nuns' eyes may be less dim.

From these various notices we conclude that time passed not unpleasantly or unprofitably with the abbess of St Clara before those contentions began which followed upon the attack made on the established religion by Luther. In Nürnberg, as in most other cities, the feeling was general that the life of the prelacy was degenerate and that the Papacy was a hotbed of abuse. Luther's opposition to the Pope was therefore greeted with acclamation both by the enlightened men of the town, who felt that the tyranny of the Church was a stumblingblock in the way of progress, and by the people, who readily seized the idea that the means were now given them to break through class tyranny. Wilibald Pirckheimer was among those who without hesitation sided with the Lutheran agitation, but Charitas thought otherwise. The abbess of the convent of St Clara at Eger forwarded to her some of the fierce attacks on Luther from the pen of Emser († 1527), and Charitas was so delighted with them that she had them read out aloud to the nuns during meals, and was prompted to write a letter to their author.[119*]

This letter became a source of great annoyance to her. It fell into the hands of Emser s enemies, and was published with an abusive running comment on Charitas.[120*] Even Wilibald was annoyed and declared she would have done better not to have written it. He strongly supported the Lutheran agitation at the time, and Eck, who suspected him of having written the attack on himself, entitled 'Eccius Dedolatus,' for personal reasons inscribed Wilibald's name on the Papal ban. There is extant from Wilibald's pen a fragment in which he expresses doubts as to the rightfulness of convent life generally,[121*] but he gradually modified his views, The violence and narrowness of the representatives of the party of progress in Nürnberg were little to his taste. On the plea of ill-health he withdrew from the council, and took no part in the stormy discussions of 1523, when the rupture with Rome was   [p. 467]   declared complete and decisions arrived at, momentous for the future of the new faith not only in Nürnberg, but in Germany generally.

At this juncture the memoir of Charitas[122*] begins. She describes the effect of the Lutheran teaching; how ceremonies are being abolished, rules and vows declared vain, so that many monks and nuns are leaving their cloisters, putting off convent garb and marrying and otherwise doing as they choose.

'These various reasons brought us many troubles and difficulties,' she writes (p. 2), 'for many powerful and evil-minded persons came to see the friends they had in our cloister, and argued with them and told them of the new teaching, how the religious profession was a thing of evil and temptation in which it was not possible to keep holy, and that we were all of the devil. Some would take their children, sisters and relatives out of the cloister by force and by the help of admonitions and promises of which they doubtless would not have kept half. This arguing and disputing went on for a long time and was often accompanied by great anger and abuse. But since none of the nuns by God's grace was moved to go, the fault was laid on the Franciscans, and everyone said they encouraged us, so that it would be impossible to convince us of the new belief while we had them as preachers and confessors.'

The friars had long been odious for their determined class feeling, religious intolerance, and encouragement of superstitions; it was obvious that the advocates of change would direct their attacks against them. Charitas, fully aware of the emergency, assembled the nuns and put before them the danger of being given over to 'wild priests and apostate monks,' and with their consent decided to hand in a 'supplication' to the town council. This council was presided over by three leading men (triumviri), of whom one named Nützel was the so-called representative (pfleger) of the convent, another named Ebner had a daughter among the nuns, and the third, Geuder, was the brother-in-law of Charitas. She consulted Wilibald on the matter of the supplication, but forthwith wrote and despatched a letter to each of these three men, begging and claiming the protection of her privileges.

The supplication itself (p. 12) was carefully worded, and re   [p. 468]   quested that the connection between the Franciscans and the nuns might not be severed, contradicting the charges which were brought against the former. They do not forbid the nuns to read the Evangels and other books, Charitas says,--' if they did so we should not obey them.' The nuns have the Old and the New Testament in daily use in the German and the Latin versions. Charitas denies despising the married state or retaining nuns by force. 'But as we compel no one, so too we claim not to be compelled, and to remain free in mind as well as in body. But this cannot be if we are given over to strange priests, which would be destruction to our community...,' and more to a like purpose.

The supplication was handed in at the beginning of 1524, but after considerable delay the councillors postponed giving a definite reply to it. In the meantime Charitas was much annoyed by the mother of one of her nuns who tried to persuade her daughter to leave the convent, and finding her words of no avail, appealed to the town council (p. 19) for an order to take her 'out of this prison' as she called it, into which she had sent her nine years before at the age of fourteen. Charitas also sent in a statement of the case (p. 28), but again no reply was vouchsafed her.

The letters which Clara wrote to her brother about this time help us to realise the situation. All her letters are undated, but in one she thanks Wilibald for his advice about the supplication, and says that if divine service should really be abolished she means to devote herself more to reading, for 'the dear beloved old writers surely were no fools.'[123*] In another she thanks him for the loan of books and says a work of Erasmus (probably De libero arbitrio has pleased the sisters by its moderation. As to Charitas 'she finds great comfort in her beloved old Cyprian, in whose writings she reads day and night. She sends greetings and the message that she prefers Cyprian to all these new evangelists who strut about in cut garments and golden chains.'[124*]

Though Clara did not lose her cheerfulness, Charitas, who saw further, was full of apprehension. From what her sister says she regretted the severe tone of her letter to Geuder.[125*] On other occasions also she was led to indignant utterances which she afterwards regretted.[126*]

  [p. 469]  

A gap occurs at this period in her memoir which she resumed writing in March 1525, after the religious disputation had taken place at Nürnberg. After many stormy scenes, 'the preachers of the Evangel,' as they called themselves, decided to carry out their intentions without waiting for the decision of a Church Council. The immediate result of the decision was an attack on all religious houses. But in the convent of St Clara the determined and reckless energy of the reformers was matched by indignant protest and unyielding opposition on the part of the abbess.

Charitas has described in full (p. 33) how a deputation from the town council asked to be admitted into her house, and how they informed her and the assembled nuns that their connection with the Franciscans was at an end; a 'reformed' preacher had been appointed to preach in the church of the nuns, and they were left the choice among several men who would act to them as confessors. Much argument followed, but Charitas maintained that her house and the Franciscans had always been closely connected. If ve yield it is only to force and we turn to God,' she said, 'and before Him we lodge a protest and declare that we are forced against our will, and that we reject and discountenance all your proposals.' The assembled nuns rose to their feet to shew their approval of her speech, and the deputation in vain tried the effect of persuasion. Charitas scorned the idea of having anything to do with apostate monks; and the deputation retired after blaming the women for behaving in a most ungrateful manner. A second visit led to similar results; Charitas abode by her decision, the nuns wept, and the deputation retired after venting their indignation in threats.

The hopes of the convent now centred in Niitzel, their representative in the town council, and Charitas with her brother's approval wrote to him (p. 41) begging him to come to her. But the first words Nützel spoke dispelled every hope of assistance from that quarter; he blamed the nuns for opposing the council, and urged the advisability of their giving way. Charitas was most indignant and declared she was well aware that it was intended to force them to this new belief, but that they were agreed that neither in life nor in death would they listen to what the Church had not previously countenanced. She called upon the prioress to read out a second petition to the council asking to have their father confessor back or else to be left without one. She wanted Nutzel to take charge of this petition but he was only angered,   [p. 470]   and taking Charitas aside, represented to her that her opposition was a serious matter; her example was encouraging other women's convents to opposition, which would relent if she did. He said that by resigning and disbanding the convent bloodshed would be averted, and he spoke in praise of the new preacher. But Charitas remained unmoved. As he was leaving the house his daughter and the other nuns, whose fathers were members of the town council, went down on their knees to him imploring protection. He refused to listen, but was so far impressed that he never slept all the following night, as his wife afterwards told the nuns (p. 54).

The convent's opposition to their plans was a source not only of annoyance but of apprehension to the town authorities. The peasants' rising was spreading in the direction of Nürnberg, and as popular feeling was against religious houses the argument that dissolving the house might help to avert a danger was not altogether unfounded. Nützel in a long expostulation (p. 55) shortly afterwards tried to impress this view on the abbess, but Charitas urged (p. 59) that other reasons besides hatred of the friars had roused the peasants to rebellion, and complained that the ill-feeling against her house was largely due to the reformed preachers, who declared they would not rest till they had driven monks and nuns out of the town (p. 62). Rightly or wrongly she held that Poliander, the reformed preacher who was now preaching in the convent church, had been promised a reward if he persuaded her or her nuns to leave the convent (p. 67), and that his want of success aggravated his hatred of them. It was in vain that Nützel wrote in praise of him (p. 67). Charitas now looked upon Nützel as a dangerous enemy, and her sister Clara wrote to Wilibald[127*] begging him to advise the convent how to get rid of the man. In another letter[128*] she said that Charitas was seriously afraid of him.

In place of the Franciscans a number of reformed preachers now preached before the nuns and the people in the convent church. Among them was Osiander, formerly a Carthusian, whose violence at a later period was censured and resented by his Protestant brethren; and the nuns were obliged to attend and to listen to a torrent of abuse and imprecation by him and others. 'I cannot and will not detail,' says Charitas in her memoir (p. 70), 'how they perverted Holy Writ to a strange meaning, how they   [p. 471]   cast down the doctrines of the Church and discarded all ceremonies; how they abused and reviled all religious orders and classes, and respected neither Pope nor Emperor, whom they openly called tyrant, devil, and Antichrist; how roughly and in what an unchristian-like spirit and against all brotherly love they abused us and charged us with great wickedness, for the purpose of rousing the people, whom they persuaded that an ungodly set like ourselves should be destroyed, our cloister broken open, ourselves dragged out by force, since we represented a despicable class, heretics, idolatrous and blasphemous people, who were eternally of the devil.'

One might be tempted to look upon this description as an exaggeration were it not for a letter from Wilibald Pirckheimer to Melanchthon, in which he describes the outrages to which the nuns were exposed in similar terms. 'The preachers scream, swear, and storm, and do everything in their power to rouse the hatred of the masses against the poor nuns; they openly say that as words were of no avail, recourse should be had to force,' and he wonders the cloister has not yet been attacked.[129*]

Under the pressure of popular opinion and increasing restlessness the Austin monks gave over their house, and they were followed by the Carmelites, the Benedictines, and the Carthusians. The Dominicans hesitated; the Franciscans refused to go. Charitas expresses wonder that the 'spiritual poison,' as she calls it, which the preachers several times a week tried to infuse into the nuns, took no effect, and that none of them expressed a desire to leave the convent (p. 85).

Things had now come to such a pass that convents outside the city disbanded before the peasants' rising; and nuns from Pillenreuth and Engeithal sought refuge in the town with the nuns of St Clara (p. 86). These lived in daily fear of their house being stormed, for the people shouted and swore at them from below, threw stones into the choir, smashed the church windows, and sang insulting songs in the churchyard outside. But the nuns, nothing daunted, continued to keep the hours and to ring the bells, though they were every moment prePared for the worst. Clara in a letter to Wilibald described her own and her sister's fears in eloquent terms;[130*] and the nun Felicitas Grundherrin wrote   [p. 472]   to her father entreating him to abide by the old faith.[131*] In these days the nuns seem to have read a good deal of pamphlet literature, but they failed to see anything beyond an encouragement to violence and disorder in the whole Lutheran movement.

A further attempt was made by the council to coerce the convent. A number of injunctions were sent to the abbess which were to be carried out within a month (p. 88). The first of these commanded her to absolve the nuns from their vow that they might enjoy 'Christian freedom' another that she should send the young nuns home though they refused, 'since children should obey their parents.' The deputies who laid these injunctions before the abbess assured her that the council was prepared to restore to the nuns what they had brought to the convent; that they would give money to those who had brought nothing, and provide a dower for those who married. To these arguments Charitas replied that the nuns had made a vow not before her but before God, that it was not in her power to dispense them from it and that she would not urge them to disobedience. With a touch of bitterness she added that their mothers were continually at the convent grating urging them to go (p. 87). For the matrons of the town especially sided with the reformed preachers and cried shame on convent life. 'If it were not for the women and the preachers things would not be so bad,' Clara wrote on one occasion to Wilibald,[132*] and on another she spoke of the sharp tongues and violent behaviour of the women.

The deputation further claimed that the nuns should take off their convent clothes (p. 93), the sight of which they said gave umbrage. 'We are continually told,' Charitas replied, 'that our vows and our clothes threaten to cause a rising, but it is your preachers, to whom we are forced to listen, who try to provoke one by abusing and condemning us from the pulpit and charging us with vices and impurity to humour the people.' The command was also given to do away with the convent grating; and it was backed by the threat that if Charitas failed to comply with it the town authorities would throw open the house to all visitors. The heaviness of this blow was such that after the deputation had left Charitas summoned the nuns and asked their intentions severally. In the eyes of the whole convent throwing open the house involved turning it into a public resort of bad character.   [p. 473]   They felt they must yield or leave the house altogether, but they promised to abide by the decision of Charitas if she would stay and advise them. The intrepid abbess decided to do away with the grating at one window, declaring that they acted against the rule under protest and only temporarily. On the other points she sought the advice of learned men outside, but they advised compromise, for, to give her own words (p. 95), 'they said all chance was gone of gaining anything by opposition; we must yield if we did not want the house to go to ruin. People now did things by main force regardless of justice or equity, fearful neither of Pope nor Emperor, nor even of God except in word; things were such that these people said, What we will must be done, thus and not otherwise, declaring themselves more powerful than the Pope himself.'

In the meantime the feelings against the nunnery were by no means unanimous. Geuder, the brother-in-law of Charitas, was emphatic at the council meeting in denouncing the throwing open of convents, which in his eyes also meant turning them into disreputable houses.[133*] But no amount of opposition made by him and others could prevent a scene from being enacted in the convent chapel, which was afterwards looked upon as disgraceful, not only by those who provoked it, but by outsiders whether partisans of the Lutheran movement or not. The repeated attempts to persuade the nuns to leave having failed and Charitas refusing to bid them go, two of the chief councillors, one of them Nützel, the representative of the convent's interests, and the widow of a councillor who had long clamoured for her daughter's release, repaired to the convent with a number of other persons, claimed to be admitted, and declared they had come to fetch their daughters away. The three nuns, who were between nineteen and twenty-three years of age, tried to hide, but Charitas bade them come forth, and they then sought refuge with her in the convent chapel. She has described in full how the young women besought her to protect them, how their parents and others abused and reviled them, and how in spite of their protests, their indignation and their tears, their relations at last resorted to violence. Four persons seized each nun and dragged and pushed her out of the chapel, while the women present shouted approval, and once outside their convent clothes were torn off and others substituted in their stead. After a scuffle and a scramble in which one nun was knocked   [p. 474]   over and her foot injured, they were carried to a chariot waiting outside and conveyed away.

Charitas remained behind in grief and despair. 'I and all my nuns are so distressed at all this,' she wrote a few days later,[134*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 161. 'that I have almost wept out my eyes.... Nothing ever so went to my heart.' Indignation at the violence of the act became general in the town and spread beyond its confines. 'I never could have imagined women acting in such a cruel manner,' Sabina, the abbess of Bergen, wrote to Wilibald; and in another letter, apprehending the destruction of the convent at Nürnberg, she proposed that Charitas and her nulls should seek refuge with her.[135*]

But Charitas persisted in holding her ground, though with an aching heart. When the men who had fetched away their daughters sent word offering to pay for their maintenance during the time they had lived with her, she refused. Her trials in one direction had reached their climax,--the councillor Nützel, who admitted that things had gone too far, henceforth acted in a conciliatory spirit, and some approximation took place between them. Not that he ever tired of urging Charitas to desert her convent and her cause, but he now confined himself to persuasion and argument, and when one of the young nuns who had been carried off was so far reconciled to the world that she came to the convent window and urged her step-sister to return home, pretending that Nützel had sent her (p. 123), the councillor disclaimed having done so. His correspondence with Charitas, which she has faithfully inserted in her memoir, shows that she patiently listened to every argument in favour of the new doctrines. She had a conversation with the preacher Osiander which lasted four hours (p. 128), she listened to over a hundred sermons preached by the Lutherans, and she read their writings, yet she could find nothing to her taste and it seemed easy to her to confound their arguments. Her letters show that her unhappiness was great, for on one occasion she went so far as to put before Nützel (p. 122) what the result would be if women like themselves, many of whom were over sixty and several over seventy, returned to the world and tried to earn their living, as everyone said they ought to do. She declared she detained no one, the nuns were at liberty to go if they chose; everyone was giving her advice, she said, but she   [p. 475]   saw no salvation in the new doctrines, which did not appeal to her. Her readiness to listen to argument caused Nützel to set his hopes on a conference between Melanchthon and her (p. 133), and probably at the instigation of Wilibald, who was deeply grieved at the injustice done to his sisters without being able to give them direct help, Melanchthon, who was well known for his uprightness and conciliatory influence, came to Nürnberg towards the close of the year 1525. 'I am glad to hear Melanchthon is coming,' Charitas wrote; 'since I have heard he is an irreproachable, upright and justice-loving man, I do not suppose he can approve of what has been done here.'

Nützel at once (p. 149) brought him to the convent. 'A few days later our representative came with Philip Melanchthon,' Charitas wrote, 'who spoke much about the new faith, but finding that we set our hopes more on the grace of God than on our works, he said we might as well seek our salvation in the cloister as in the world.' They had a long talk together and agreed on all points except on the subject of vows, for these the reformer declared were not binding, while Charitas maintained that a promise made to God must be kept. She describes Melanchthon as more moderate in his speech than she had ever known a Lutheran to be. Melanchthon, on hearing the various points of the case, blamed the councillors for having forbidden the Franciscans to confer with the convent, and for forcibly taking the nuns out of the cloister. 'I trust God has sent this Lutheran at the right hour,' Charitas wrote, 'for they were discussing whether or not to expel nuns generally, pull down their houses, and put the older inmates of those convents which would not surrender into one house, driving back the younger ones into the world' (p. 171).

According to her account Melanchthon represented to the council that no convent at Wittenberg had been destroyed by force, and after a great deal of argument it was decreed to make one more effort to persuade the nuns to go, and failing this to leave them alone. No concessions were made with regard to the friars, the nuns remained without a minister to take their confessions and to administer the sacrament, but after all the nuns had been severally asked if they wished to stay or to go, and only one declared herself ready to leave the house, the rest were left in possession till the end of their days.

With the account of the last visitation, which took place in 1528, the memoir of Charitas ends. From other sources we hear   [p. 476]   that short of annoyances about her income and a tax levied on the convent she remained unmolested, and passed the last few years of her life in peace. At the close of 1528, the fiftieth anniversary of her entering the convent, and the twenty-fifth year of her appointment as abbess, was celebrated with some amount of cheerfulness. Wilibald and others sent presents, and after dinner the nuns danced to the sound of the dulcimer (hackbrett), which the abbess played.[136*] Wilibald's interest in the convent continued, and towards the close of his life we find him busy writing a pamphlet in justification of the nuns,[137*] in which he developed at some length the arguments against those who had oppressed and coerced them. He died in 1530, and within a couple of years was followed by his sister Charitas (1533). Her sister Clara ruled the convent for a few months after her and was succeeded by Wilibald's daughter Charitas. The number of nuns was slowly but steadily dwindling; before the close of the century the house had fallen into the hands of the town council by default.

The abbess Charitas Pirckheimer worthily represents the monastic life of women at the close of the Middle Ages. Faithful to the system she had embraced, she remained true to her convictions to the last, with a fearlessness, candour, and determination which give her attitude a touch of heroism. She is one among many staunch adherents to the old faith who experienced hardships which simple humanity and feelings of equity and justice alike condemned, but whose steadfastness could not save their cause from being lost.


[1*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'St Radegund's,' vol. 4, p. 215, charter nr 3.

[2*] Gasquet, F. A., Henry VIII and the English Monasteries, 1888, vol. 1, p. 62.

[3*] At a meeting of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society (reported in the Academy, Feb. , 1895), Mr T. D. Atkinson read a paper on 'The Conventual Buildings of the priory of St Radegund,' illustrated by a plan showing such of the college buildings as were probably monastic, and also the position of some foundations discovered in the previous summer. According to this paper the present cloister occupies the same position as that of the nuns, and the conventual church was converted into a college chapel by Alcock. The college hall which is upstairs is the old refectory, the rooms below being very likely used as butteries, as they still are. The present kitchen is probably on the site of the old monastic kitchen, and very likely the rooms originally assigned to the Master are those which had been occupied by the prioress. Further details of arrangement were given about the dormitory, the chapter house, the calefactory and common-room, etc., from which we gather that the men who occupied the nunnery buildings, put these to much the same uses as they had served before.

[4*] Fiddes, 'Life of Card. Wolsey,' 1726, Collect., p. 100.

[5*] Ibid. p. 99.

[6*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Bromball,' vol. 4, p. 506.

[7*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Lillechurch,' vol. 4, p. 379, footnote e.

[9*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'St Frideswith's,' vol. 2, p. 138. Fiddes, 'Life of Card. Wolsey,' 1726, Collect.,p. 95.

[10*] Wilkins, D., Concilia, 1737, 'Bull' (Sept. 1524), vol. 3, p. 703; 'Breve regium,' ibid. p.705.

[11*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'St Frideswith's,' vol. 2, p. 138, footnote x.

[12*] Ibid. 'Wykes,' vol. 4, p. 513; 'Littlemore,' vol. 4, p. 490, nr 12.

[13*] Rymer, Foedera, 'Bulla pro monasteriis supprimendis,' vol. 6, p. 116; 'Bulla pro uniendis monasteriis,' p. 137.

[14*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII and the English Monasteries, 1888, vol. I, pp. 101 ff.

[15*] Blunt, The Reformation of the Church of England, 1882, vol. I, p. 92, footnote, says that the lady in question was 'Eleanor the daughter of Cary who had lately married (Anne's) sister Margaret.'

[16*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Wilton,' vol. 2, p. 317, gives the correspondence. The abbess who succeeded to Isabel Jordan was probably Cecil Bodman or Bodenham, of whom more p. 441.

[17*] Fish, S., 'A Supplicacyon for the Beggers,' republished Early Engl. Text Soc., 1871.

[18*] More, Th., 'The Supplycacyon of Soulys,' 1529 (?).

[19*] Wright, Th., Three chapters of letters on the Suppression (Camden Soc., 1843), nrs 6--11.

[20*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII and the English Monasteries, vol. I, pp. 110--150.

[21*] Gairdner, J., Letters and Papersetc., vol. 8, Preface, pp. 33 ff.

[22*] Wilkins, D., Concilia,1737, vol. 3, p. 755.

[23*] Dict. of Nat. Biography,article 'Legh, Sir Thomas.'

[24*] Wright, Three chapters etc., p. 56.

[25*] Gairdner, J., Letters etc., vol. 9, nr 139.

[26*] Ibid. Preface, p. 20.

[27*] Ibid. Vol. 9, nr 280.

[28*] Gasquet, Henry VIII etc., vol. I, p. 273.

[29*] Wright, Three chapters of letters,p. 55.

[30*] Gasquet, Henry VIII etc, vol. I, p. 276; Ellis, H., Original Letters, Series 3, vol. 3, p. 11, says that after resigning at Little Marlow she became abbess at Mailing.

[31*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Little Marlow,' vol. 4, p. 419; 'Ankerwyke,' vol. 4, p. 229.

[32*] Gairdner, J., Letters and Papers etc., vol. 9, nr 1075 (her house is unknown).

[33*] Ellis, H., Original Letters, Series I, vol. 2, p. 91.

[34*] Wright, Three chapters etc., p. 74.

[35*] Gairdner, J., Letters and Papers etc., vol. 9, nr 357.

[36*] Gairdner, J., Letters and Papers etc., vol. 9, nr 732.

[37*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII etc., vol. I, p. 293.

[38*] Wright, Three chapters etc., p. 107.

[39*] Ibid. p. 114; Gasquet, Henry VIII etc., vol. I, p. 303.

[40*] Gairdner, J., Letters and Papersetc., vol. 10, nr 364.

[41*] Wright, Three chaptersetc., p. 91.

[42*] Ellis, H., Original Letters, Series 3, vol. 3, p. 38.

[43*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Harwold,' vol. 6, p. 330.

[44*] Ellis, H., Original Letters, speaks of the image of Our Lady of Caversham which was plated all over with silver, Series r, vol. 2 , p. 79; of that of St Modwen of Burton on Trent with her red cowl and staff, Series 3, vol. 3, p. 104; of the 'huge and great image' of Darvellgathern held in great veneration in Wales, Series r, vol. 2, p. 82; and of others, which were brought to London and burnt.

[45*] Wright, Three chapters etc., p. 116.

[46*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII etc., vol. 2, p. 47.

[47*] Ibid. Appendix I.

[48*] Gairdner, J,, Letters and Papers etc., vol. 9, nr 1094.

[49*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII., etc., vol. 2, App. I.

[50*] Wright, Three chapters etc., p. 139.

[51*] Ellis, H., Orig. Letters, Series 3, vol. 3, p. 37.

[52*] Ibid. p. 116.

[53*] Ibid., p. 39.

[54*] Wright, Three chapters etc., p. 129.

[55*] Gairdner, J., Letters and Papers etc., vol. 10, nr 383 (1536).

[56*] Wright, Three chapters etc., p. 136.

[57*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII etc., vol. 2, App. I.

[58*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'St Mary's,' vol. 2, p. 451, charter nr 4.

[59*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII etc., vol. 2, App. I.

[60*] Gairdner, J., Letters and Papers etc. vol. II, nr 385 (20).

[61*] Ibid. (22, 23, 35).

[62*] Dugdale, Monasticon, Chatteris,' vol. 2, p. 614, calls her 'Anne Gayton.'

[63*] Gairdner, J., Letters and Papers, vol. II, nr 519 (II); nr 1217 (26).

[64*] Ibid. vol. 10, nr 364.

[65*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII etc., vol.2 , p. 206; Gairdner, J., Letters and Papers etc., vol. 10, Preface, p. 46.

[66*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Dennis,' vol. 6, p. 1549.

[67*] Ellis, H., Orig. Letters, Series 3, vol. 3, p. 117.

[68*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII etc., vol. 2, p. 203.

[69*] Ibid. vol. 2, pp. 449 ff.

[70*] Gairdner, J., Letters and Papers etc., vol. 11, nr 42.

[71*] Ibid. vol. II, Preface, p. 12.

[72*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII etc., vol. 2 , pp. 84 ff.

[73*] Gairdner, J., Letters and Papers etc., vols. 11, 12.

[74*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'Seton,' vol. 4, p. 226.

[75*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII etc., vol.2 , p. 340.

[76*] Gairdner, J., Letters and Papers etc., vol. 12, pt 2, nr 27.

[77*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII etc., vol. 2, p. 279.

[78*] Gairdner, J., Letters and Papers etc., vol. 13, pt I, nr 1115 (19), nr 1529 (44).

[79*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII etc., vol. 2, p. 222.

[80*] Gairdner, J., Letters and Papers etc., vol. 10, nr 364.

[81*] Ibid. vol. 13, pt I, nr 235.

[82*] Ellis, H., Orz. Letters, Series 3, vol. 3.

[83*] Wright, Three chapters etc., p. 229.

[84*] Wright, Three chapters etc., p. 227.

[85*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIZ! etc., vol. 2, p. 225.

[86*] Ibid. 456.

[87*] Dugdale, Monasticon, 'St Mary's,' vol. 2, p. 451; Gasquet, A., Henry VIII etc., vol. 2, p. 476.

[88*] Dugdale, Monasticon,'Wherwell,' vol. 2, p. 634.

[89*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIII etc., vol. 2, p. 481.

[90*] Ibid. p. 479.

[91*] Ellis, H., Orig. Letters, Series 3, vol. 3, p. 34, gives an interesting account.

[92*] Lindesay, Ane Satyre of the thrie Estaits, edit. by Hall for the Early Engl. Text Soc., 1869, pp. 420 ff.

[93*] Gasquet, A., Henry VIIIetc., vol. 2, p. 221.

[94*] Fuller, Th., Church History,edit, Brewer, 1845, vol. 3, p. 336.

[95*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer,1878, pp. 14 ff.

[96*] Ibid. pp. 67 ff.

[97*] Nider, Jos., Formicarius,bk. I, ch. 4 (p. 8, edit. 1517).

[98*] Muench, E., Charitas Pirkheimer, ihre Schwestern und Nichten, 1826, contains some of Clara's letters.

[99*] Binder, F., Charitcss Pirckheimer,p. 67.

[100*] 'Briefe der Aebtissin Sabina,' edit. Lochner in Zeitschrift fur hist. Theologie, vol. 36, 1866.

[101*] Pirckheimer, B., Opera,edit. Goldast, 1610, p. 345; Binder, F., Cahritas Pirkheimer,p. 52.

[102*] Pirckheimer, Opera, edit. Goldast, 1610, p. 341; Binder, F., Charitas Pirckheimer, p. 81.

[103*] Pirckheimer, Opera,p. 343; Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheirner, p. 84.

[104*] Pirckheimer, Opera, p. 342; Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 85.

[105*] Pirckheimer, Qpera. p. 344; Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 87.

[106*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer,. p. 88.

[107*] Ibid. p. 220, note 26.

[108*] Pirckheimer, Opera, p. 340; Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer,p. 89.

[109*] Born in Venice in 1465, was acquainted both with Latin and Greek, and studied history, philosophy and theology. She disputed at Padua in public, wrote several learned treatises, and was much admired and esteemed.

[110*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheirner, p. 96.

[111*] Pirckheimer, Opera, p. 230; Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheirner, p. 55.

[112*] Pirckheimer, Opera, p. 344; Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 58.

[113*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheirner, p. 65, footnote.

[114*] Ibid. p. 66.

[115*] Pirckheimer, Opera, p. 247; Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 61.

[116*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 62.

[117*] Ibid. p. 35.

[118*] Thausing, M., Dürer's Briefe etc., 1872, p.167.

[119*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer,p. 105.

[120*] Eyn Misyve oder Sendbriefetc., 1523.

[121*] Pirckheimer,Opera,p. 375.

[122*] 'Pirkheimer, Charitas': Denkwürdigkeiten aus dem Reformationseitalter, herausg. Höfler, C., Quellensammiung für fränk. Geschichte, vol.4 , 1852 (page references in the text to this edition).

[123*] Muench, E., Charitas Pirckheimer etc., 1826, p. 104.

[124*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 125, from an unpublished letter.

[125*] Muench, E., Charitas Pirckheirner etc., p. 110.

[126*] Ibid., p. 118 (on a letter written to Nützel).

[127*] Muench, E., Charitas Pirckheimer,etc., p. 106.

[128*] Ibid. p. 109

[129*] Pirckheimer, Opera,p. 374.

[130*] Muench, E., Charitas Pirckheimer,etc., p. 108.

[131*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer,p. 118.

[132*] Ibid. p. 150, from an unpublished letter.

[133*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 153.

[135*] 'Briefe der Aebtissin Sabina,' edit. Lochner in Zeitschrift für hist. Theologie, vol. 36, 1866, pp. 542, 545.

[136*] Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, pp. 183 ff.

[137*] Pirckheimer, Opera, 'Oratio apologetica,' pp. 375--385; Binder, F., Charitas Pirkheimer, p. 198.

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